Practice, Practise, Praxis

Practice makes perfect… or so the old adage mistakenly leads some to believe. Aside from the fact that even extensive practice is not enough to explain why people differ in their skill levels, perfection is an illusion, an ideological concept that exists only relative to your own expectations and experiences.

Heather and birch trees in an English nature reserve on a misty winter morning.


There are many traps that lie in wait for those who, consciously or not, continually desire perfection, which often leads to disappointment and an inhibition of success through the setting of unattainable goals, and ultimately damages the relationship you have with yourself. Self-worth should not be measured by productivity and accomplishments.

Intentional camera movement of tall grasses highlighted by late afternoon sun amongst a stand of young Aspens

Aspen Flames

Practice does, however, make progress and striving to do your best with focus-on-self is not the same as perfectionism. We tend to think of practice in terms of the verb, to practise, where you perform an activity or exercise repeatedly to improve or maintain your proficiency. So, for example, practising your music scales on the piano. Practising can of course apply to any activity or custom that is done habitually or regularly. And although when we photograph - especially when we are just starting out - we may find ourselves practising using our equipment or practising our post-processing skills, this type of technical practice in isolation will not be sufficient to improve our skills as photographers.

A stagnant pool filled with colourful autumn leaves and bodies of dead insects.

Circle of Life

Instead, no matter how long you have been photographing, it may be helpful to think of your photography as a set of photographic practices that, over time, are developed and nurtured to be unique to you. As a veterinarian, I practised medicine. Doctors don’t ‘do’ medicine, they practise it. Does this mean that vets are out there experimenting on your fluffy loved ones in order to improve their skills? Of course not. The use of the word practice, in this case, derives from ‘praxis’; the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized. The same is true when we talk about art practices of any genre. By reflecting upon the thoughts and actions that we realise when we are make photographic images, we enter into an iterative cycle of experiential learning. We can draw on theories or lessons from any other aspect of our lives and bring those into creative spaces.

Patterns on birch bark paper

Morse Code

Some of the practices we develop are technical. Simple practices may include habitually checking your histogram or that the image is correctly focused before walking away. These ones are obvious perhaps but seeing is itself a practice and one that is central to any visual artform including photography. There are many ways of seeing and many questions to ponder about one’s own way(s) of seeing. Paraphrasing Donna Haraway: Where do we see from? What limits our vision? Who do we see with? What do we see for? Who gets blinded? Who interprets the visual field? ‘Seeing’ goes beyond what is immediately visible through our viewfinder at any one moment.

Mud tiles crack and peel away in a Death Valley playa

Perfect Imperfections

Between the perceiver and the perceived, that which is actually noticed and that which is potentially perceivable are formed intersubjectively and interactively. Practice helps us understand the interconnectedness been perceiving subject (the photographer) and perceived object within their social surrounding, and therefore helps us deepen our thoughts in relation to what it is we are photographing. As we are all unique individuals, so too are our photographic practices and ways of seeing in the world.

Bare, winter trees covered in hoar frost against a background of shadowed mountains and a cloud inversion.

A Question of Colour

Book recommendations:

The Gifts of Imperfection – Brené Brown (2010)

Ways of seeing – John Berger (1972)

Posted in Reflections.

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